Neither the federal government nor state governments should impose mandatory labeling of genetically modified organisms in food. Here’s why.

For thousands of years, humans have changed the genetic makeup of their food, including introducing genes from other species. Through genetic engineering, a gene with desired traits or characteristics can, with efficiency and precision, be inserted from one crop plant into another plant.

If food has been genetically engineered, this merely describes the technique in which the food was developed. Genetic engineering doesn’t mean the particular food is going to be different from its traditional counterpart in any material way, such as in terms of safety or nutrition. If there are material differences, the FDA already requires this information be communicated to consumers.

Safety — The FDA not only has said GMO foods are safe; it also has expressly stated that labeling of GMO foods isn’t necessary. In 2001, discussing the policy it developed in 1992, the FDA said:

The 1992 policy does not establish special labeling requirements for bioengineered foods as a class of foods. The policy states that FDA has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.

Beyond the FDA, the science supporting the safety of GMOs is overwhelming. The Genetic Literacy Project has a great chart outlining conclusions from major international organizations that supports the safety of GMO foods. One such conclusion is from the American Medical Association:

There is no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods. Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer reviewed literature.

No Right to Know. Proponents of mandatory GMO food labeling often claim they have the right to know whether GMO ingredients are in their food. No such right exists. What proponents are really asking is that government use its power to force private companies to disclose immaterial and potentially misleading information to consumers. This mandate comes at the financial expense of the private companies and possibly at the expense of First Amendment protections from compelled speech. Mandatory labeling is a big-government solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

If consumers want information relating to the GMO status of a product, food companies can and already disclose this information voluntarily. This distinction between mandatory and voluntary often gets lost in the GMO food debate.

Anti-Consumer. Ironically, mandatory labeling has been framed as a pro-consumer issue. It’s exactly the opposite. Mandatory labeling would be harmful to consumers. If the government, at either the state or federal level, requires the labeling of GMO foods, this tells consumers the government believes something is or could be wrong with GMO foods. This government message would carry great weight.

The message that something could be wrong with GMO foods would not come only from food packages. It also would come from all the surrounding hype.

If this were a federal mandatory labeling requirement private companies would be forced to include a GMO food label even though the federal government’s own science concludes such a label is unnecessary. The FDA would be enforcing a mandate that isn’t consistent with its own findings. As for states developing their own labeling requirements, they would be ignoring sound science. If there’s going to be a government mandate, there at least should be some reasonable scientific support for it.

Jeopardizing the Potential of GMO Foods. Mandatory labeling also is likely to harm the further development of GMO foods. Throwing away the potential of GMO foods because of non-existent science, scare tactics and consumer misinformation would be a tragedy. GMO crops can improve the nutritional value of foods and the growth of crops. It has the potential to help developing countries feed their starving populations.

A great example of its potential is golden rice. In 1999, rice was infused with beta-carotene, which is critical for the human body in producing Vitamin A. Golden rice was developed to address a critical public health problem. As my colleague Scott Blakeman recently noted:

Vitamin A deficiency plagues millions of children and pregnant woman in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.”

Unfortunately, activists have been successful in blocking its use.

The potential is exciting. Yet, even in light of this potential, the mandatory labeling issue still primarily comes back to whether the government should force companies to provide irrelevant information to consumers that likely will mislead them about what they are consuming. This shouldn’t even be a close call.